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The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching

By Stephen D. Brookfield
432 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-5601-5
$36.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

María V. Balderrama

Department of Language, Literacy and Culture
College of Education
California State University, San Bernardino


How we think is…a matter of life and death.
Howard Zinn
Historian, Playwright, and Social Activist

The quotation above aptly captures the essence of The Power of Critical Theory: Librating Adult Learning and Teaching by distinguished professor Stephen Brookfield. Thinking and acting critically within the context of adult or higher education is the major premise of this book. As stated in the preface, a major motivation for his book is to make explicit the connection between theory and practice, while putting “critical back into critical thinking.”

To Brookfield, thinking critically extends beyond cognitive or intellectual exercises, examining assumptions or considering different perspectives. Criticality involves seeing the world with a political lens, developing or enhancing one’s social awareness, sense of morality and social justice. Critical thinking requires thoughtful analysis about our world and the need for its betterment in all aspects of life. Brookfield believes the union of critical thinking and action forms the basis of hope for maintaining and upholding democratic societies. Critical thinkers “walk the walk,” as they are those individuals engaging in social and political critique through thought and action.

This book is a call for active, thoughtful involvement in the democratic process through political critique and action. Brookfield advocates taking criticality out of the exclusive realm of theoretical, left-leaning intellectuals and infusing it into the higher education curriculum. In this book, he tries to bring critical thinking out of the intellectual box and into the mainstream by making it a “dominant and legitimate interpretive perspective in the field” (p. x) of adult education.

Chapter One examines the role and utility of theory in general, and critical theory in particular. “We theorize so we can understand what’s happening to us and so that we can make informed action,” he explains (p.4). Brookfield illustrates the relevance of theory to action and life in bell hooks, and how it “saved her life” (p.4). He identifies and discusses four traditions of criticality including the primary perspective used in this book—the ideology critique, which is neo-Marxist and reflects the work of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. The work of Frankfurt School theorists Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse grounds ideology critique and “describes the ways in which people learn to recognize how uncritically accepted and unjust dominant ideologies are embedded in everyday situations and practices” (p. 13).

Brookfield gives a clear and extensive definition of what makes a theory critical. Five distinct characteristics of critical theory are discussed within a Marxist framework and focus on knowledge, understanding of economic and sociopolitical contexts leading to freedom from oppression. Taking abstract concepts and making these practical and concrete, while connecting to adult learning is one of the book’s strengths. Problems and questions are posed as a way to help learners “think (awaken) and act” on their human agency. Problem posing includes how adults learn to unmask the flow of power in their lives and their communities, and how they learn to recognize, accept, and exercise whatever freedom they have to change the world (p. 31).

Chapter Two provides an overview of the learning tasks that facilitate criticality by putting it into action. These learning tasks are the bridge between theory and action. Adult learning, the author insists, must focus on these tasks:

  • Challenging ideology that perpetuates social and economic inequality
  • Challenging hegemony
  • Unmasking power
  • Overcoming alienation and achieving empowerment and liberation
  • Reclaiming reason
  • Practicing democracy

Each of these issues is a learning task that he addresses in the succeeding seven chapters.

Brookfield insists in Chapter Three that challenging ideology, or ideology critique, is the central concept in critical theory and a major adult learning activity. Ideology is defined as the system of beliefs and practices that reflects and reproduces existing social structures, systems and relations, and characterizes capitalism and bureaucratic rationality as the “twin evils” of such a system (p. 68). The work of Adorno and Horkheimer, as well as that of Louis Althusser, French Marxist theorist, is used to describe ideological matters, and Brookfield quotes the colloquial expression “mustn’t grumble” from his native England, and its equivalent in the United States, “that’s life,” to show how ideology is manifested and how the acceptance of the inequities in the social order are seen as a natural part of life. The voice of Paulo Freire, influential theorist of education, resounds throughout this chapter as Brookfield suggests that resisting ideology is possible, sharing several tales of ideology resistance in books, legal recourse and even television programs and documentary films.

Chapter Four deals with hegemonic processes and describes how adults are “willing partners in their own oppression.” (p. xii). The name of political thinker and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci is synonymous with hegemony and his formulation of the organic intellectual is discussed, along with an extensive discussion of critical consciousness as an anti-hegemonic effort.

A discussion of critical theory would be incomplete without an examination of power and this is successfully accomplished in Chapter Five. Historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s classic work frames this discussion. The politics of power and knowledge is a rich section relevant to educators and students alike, as there is an extensive discussion of how knowledge is socially produced and controlled by those in power.

Alienation and the dehumanizing of the individual are examined in Chapter Six using psychoanalyst and social theorist Erich Fromm’s work. This discussion goes beyond the Marxist perspective of the alienation of the worker, and extends into Fromm’s view of “automaton conformity” (p. 169). This human automaticity refers to how modern society can lead to people’s inability to think and act critically. This chapter closes like the rest, with how adult educators can help people resist alienation and disconnection by learning and practicing democratic habits.

Learning liberation, in Chapter Seven, uses Marcuse’s work of the one-dimensional man to escape entrapment of thinking unidimensionally. Art, abstract thought, and exposure to alternative perspectives are ways to learn and practice liberation. Art appreciation is a useful learning task promoting criticality. While reading this section I found evidence of its relevance in the persistent erosion of art from all realms of public life and the persistent push for the standardization of knowledge. For example, public funding for art has been drastically reduced and art education in many public schools has been eliminated, replaced by the standards movement, thus fostering and perpetuating unidimensionality in thinking.

Critical theorist Jürgen Habermas’ work in transformative learning is the focus of Chapters Eight and Nine. Chapter Eight, reclaiming reason, discusses how true reason must be used to build a participatory democracy. Chapter Nine, learning democracy, summarizes Habermas’ ideas around communicative action and adult learning.

In Chapters Ten and Eleven, Brookfield addresses the limitations of critical theory. He extends the social class analysis by including race and gender perspectives. The work of African-American scholars Lucius Outlaw and Cornel West is used to address and redress the racialization of theories. Unfortunately, other racial or historically subordinated groups are not included in this discussion, and the only perspective used to examine the racialization of theory is the African-American perspective. This gap is perhaps the biggest weakness of The Power of Critical Theory.

In Chapter Eleven a similar situation is repeated as Brookfield examines gender by focusing on the experience of black women exclusively. The work of activist scholars Angela Davis and bell hooks provides useful examples of how critical theory can incorporate non-white feminist perspectives. However, Brookfield discusses and examines the limitations of critical theory within a black/white paradigm, thereby excluding many women of color who have also been historically subordinated and oppressed. Brookfield’s otherwise strong work is weakened by his inability to provide a more inclusive and extensive critical perspective in his discussion of white and male privilege.

Chapter Twelve appropriately ends the book with educational practices grounded in critical theory. A candid and important section seals this extensive discussion with Brookfield’s personal reflection and the resistance he has encountered in teaching critical theory to adult learners. This last chapter is refreshingly candid, as those of us practicing and teaching criticality are familiar with the consequences of talking about social justice and challenging hegemony.

Brookfield’s powerful, detailed book makes a clear and convincing argument for the need to think critically and act with a critical consciousness. This is particularly useful and important given the increasing standardization of knowledge and behavior we are experiencing in our educational institutions and in society at large. The Power of Critical Theory makes it clear that we are at a point in history where we cannot afford not to think about our world and the social conditions surrounding us. Brookfield’s book is a rich resource with extensive references and is a useful contribution to all educators who consider critical thinking an integral part of teaching, learning and living in a democratic society. His ideas for social justice are realistic, doable, and attainable. Brookfield skillfully demonstrates how thinking and acting critically can indeed save our lives!

Posted November 6, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by María V. Balderrama

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